Ultimate Cosmetology Career Guide

What Do Cosmetologist Do?

Cosmetology professionals offer beauty services such as cutting, shampooing, styling, and/or coloring hair.  A cosmetologist will often provide professional advice to clients that range from how to care for their hair to changing hair color to chemically changing hair texture.  They can take specific classes to become proficient at providing quality pedicures, manicures, scalp massages, and facial treatments.  A cosmetologist may also be trained to properly clean and style hair pieces or wigs along with the knowledge to provide a client with a full makeup analysis.

Top Skills of a Cosmetologist

Cosmetologists, hairdressers, and hairstylists may- as a standard practice- invest time with their customers to provide valuable advice on how they can take great care of their hair at home.   This approach will lead to a higher degree of engagement and repeat visits from the same customers.  For these consistent clients, cosmetologists will want to maintain detailed records of skin regimen, personal attributes, and hair color routines on file for quick reference.

From a physical standpoint, a cosmetologist needs to have a high degree of stamina and formidable health as they will often find themselves standing for extended stretches of the day.  It is highly recommended to constantly change working positions from standing to kneeling to squatting in an effort to work different muscle groups and keep loose throughout the work day.   In addition to the physical demands, cosmetologists are encouraged to protect themselves by using gloves and aprons as the situation dictates.  If a client’s treatment will be utilizing chemicals to alter their hair or skin, it is recommended to wear appropriate protection before, during, and after the completion of the treatment.

Where Do Cosmetologists Work?

The work setting for cosmetologists, hairdressers, and hairstylists is usually a well-lit, organized, and properly ventilated shop.  Even though a fair number of cosmetologists work in spas and hotels, the vast majority of professionals elect to be specialists that work in salons or barbershops.

If a cosmetologist owns his/her own salon, they will likely be involved in a wide array of administrative and managerial duties.  These duties may include managing advertising, marketing campaigns, inventory management, hiring staff, legal responsibilities, janitorial, and security.  Salon owners may also need to maintain a client base of their own in addition to balancing administrative duties depending on the size, scope, and structure of the salon.

Most Common Work Arrangements in Cosmetology

A cosmetologist will likely be expected to work about 40 hours per week or possibly more as the schedule dictates for W2 employees.  The work week can include weekends and evenings in order to accommodate their customer base or varying day-parts when the salon tends to be extremely busy.  For those who may be self-employed or 1099 contractors they will often dictate a schedule and simply pay a chair fee at a specific salon.  While the hours for a self-employed cosmetologist may be more or less than 40 hours a week, they are able to craft a schedule that works around their personal life versus a firm schedule day over day.  In fact, approximately 29% of cosmetologists, hairdressers, and hairstylists work part time while about 14 percent have very flexible schedules.

Cosmetology Career Outlook

Looking forward, the BLS estimates that cosmetologists will see a growth rate of approximately 10% through 2024 increasing from 597,200 to 655,600 working professionals.  From an academic standpoint, the employment growth for all occupations in the US during that same timeframe is 7%, meaning cosmetology will see a growth rate 40% faster than a composite growth rate of other vocations through 2024.

A trove of additional data on cosmetology can be found on the BLS website here.  The data they have collected includes a breakdown of employment, median wage, annual wage, states with the highest employment, states with the highest concentration of cosmetologists, and a breakdown by city.  Utilizing this information to your advantage will only help you become better informed and prepared for the workforce upon completion of your degree and/or certification.

How Much Do Cosmetologists Make?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics report of 2015 indicates the annual wage for most cosmetologists is approximately $27,940 per year.  Note: the number from BLS does not account for part-time equivalent nor a significant portion of their overall compensation that comes in the form of customer tips that push the average annual income numbers well beyond the published rate.

A recent publication by the National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences (NACCAS) reveals a number of important components that roll up into total compensation for a cosmetologist.  These factors that can substantially impact compensation include: the location of the salon, the services offered at a salon, the size of the salon, hours worked, competition from nearby salons, affluence from the client base, and customer service.  The one controllable factor from the list above for a professional cosmetologist is customer service. In other words, if you are able to positively engage and cultivate relationships to grow a loyal client base through your knowledge and personal acumen, the sky will be the limit in terms of income.  Read more about the importance of world-class customer service from Joe Calloway’s book “Becoming a Category of One”.

According to published report from The U.S Department of Labor, a large percentage of professional cosmetologists that are W2 employees receive commissions based on the particular price of the service or a salary based on the hours they worked.  Further, nearly every professional in the industry of cosmetology receives tips and commissions for their products they sell which will most often go unrecorded.  There are some salons that have created a hybrid compensation system that provides a base salary plus a commission or bonuses to employees as they bring in new clients or sell products from the salon.

Cosmetology Licensing Requirements

The qualifications that are obtainable through a college or university in the cosmetology field include an array of degree pathways.  Examples of degree that may be available at a college or university include:

  • Master’s Degree
  • Bachelor’s Degree
  • Associates
  • Degree
  • Professional
  • Certificate

Cosmetologists are required to obtain a license from a state-licensed cosmetology institute.  For reference, you can view an example of Arizona’s Board of Cosmetology can be found here.  In order to be suitable for the state-issued license a candidate must: 1) earn a minimum of a high school diploma, 2) be at least 16 years of age, and 3) completed coursework and successfully graduated from a state-licensed cosmetology institute.  At the completion of their time at a state-licensed cosmetology institute, a student must pass a written and/or oral practical examination.

How Long Will it Take to Earn an Associate's Degree in Cosmetology?

Cosmetologists who choose to enter a full-time program at a state-licensed school will often stay in school for upwards of nine months which can often lead into earning an associate’s degree.  A significant number of professionals in this field will perpetually enroll for advanced courses in hairstyling, sales, and marketing to help them keep up with new trends and changes in the industry.

Cosmetology Licensing and Certifications

In some states and municipalities, a professional holding a cosmetology license may use it to earn credits towards barber license or vice versa.  Periodic license renewals are very frequently required for cosmetologists and a nominal fee is charged to take the test in order to maintain an active cosmetology license.

An interesting nuance to the licensure requirement: some states allow a cosmetologist to carry their license from one state to another without any extra training or testing.  The notion of reciprocity from state to state will vary but may be a consideration if you live in one state and work in an adjoining state.  An example of California’s application for reciprocity can be found here.

As discussed earlier, a vital aspect of successful cosmetologist's repertoire are soft skills.  These skills may seem insignificant however a tidy, organized work space may be enough to make a significant difference to your clients.   Maintaining impeccable personal hygiene may seem unimportant to most but becomes a central part of your persona as a professional cosmetologist.  Your image and attitude will allow people to naturally gravitate towards you or become a barrier to your growth if left unchecked.

Why a Career in Cosmetology?

The U.S Department of Labor and BLS see a significant rise in employment opportunities for those seeking to make a difference and help others be their best.  Having a solid background in cosmetology can also easily lend itself to growing professionally in adjacent fields such as sales, marketing, managing, writing, or professional speaking.   Learn more by visiting the MatchCollege cosmetology degree portal today or by connecting with national trade associations like the ACSP.

Search For A Degree is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.